When Breath Becomes Air
How many of you would actually consider giving a book about a young man dying to your loved one as a Valentine’s Day gift? Well, probably none of you. But that all will change when you read WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR, written by the late neuroscientist Paul Kalanithi, a memoir that is as poetic and meaningful as any work of great fiction. It honestly mines the way the world works when you find out that your time in it is completely limited and celebrates the basic function of love in a life. When you know your expiration date, you want to get off the shelf and spend that time with passion. And this book shows how one man did just that while facing pain and distress unknown to most of us in our lives.
The main crux of the memoir is to be found in a passage Kalanithi writes for his eight-month-old baby daughter, Cady, to whom the book is dedicated: “When you come to one of the many moments of your life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” And those are some of the last words he ever wrote.
"[WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR] flows like any good memoir, bringing you close to the soul of the writer but keeping you at enough distance to have perspective on his plight as he did not have for himself while living it. This makes for a completely moving and emotional reading experience."
Kalanithi struggled with cancer for years --- during his last years of med school and throughout his residency, just before he was ready to practice on his own. He recounts everything with a poetically inclined honesty: the fears, sorrows and joys of his work in the field of medicine, his love of literature, his family (most of all, his wife and daughter), the daily struggle of existence with and without horrific diseases taking your minutes from you like candy from a baby, the way that a young man begins to define his reason for being, especially when he finds out that he doesn’t have the years and decades he originally thought he would have to figure out that existential message.
WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is fun to read. It flows like any good memoir, bringing you close to the soul of the writer but keeping you at enough distance to have perspective on his plight as he did not have for himself while living it. This makes for a completely moving and emotional reading experience.
Books about people dying can have a negative effect on the reader --- and, even though anybody with a heart will shed some tears, Kalanithi’s humanity, vulnerability, pride in his work and belief that love was a strong incentive for any suffering takes WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR to a whole new level. It is the last will and testament of a man we all wish we knew. We may even envy the people close to him because they were able to invest in him and be important enough to him that, as his very breath ebbed away, he felt that it was necessary to recount them and their joy and importance to him. They become important to us, as he does, and the book feels like you have just received a letter from a close friend.
You will revel in the book’s language and emotion while appreciating its honesty and candor about death, a subject our culture has great issue with when trying to come to some way to discuss it nicely. Death here has dignity, and it provides Kalanithi with a welcome opportunity to look back at all he has learned in his young life and share it with us.
The publisher Random House can barely keep up with the demand for this book, and there is a reason. It’s not a Lifetime TV movie version of young love and death destroying it. It’s an affirmation of what the small time we are all granted on this earth meant to one man who took the time, as his vitality and strength kept him afloat, to detail to us the process of his dying so that we could understand not only how he managed to die, but also how he managed to live with and without that information. WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is a testament of strength and courage like no other.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on February 11, 2016